In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade legalised abortion nationwide. At the heart of the pivotal lawsuit was Jane Roe, a young, pregnant, working-class woman from Texas whose circumstances helped attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee argue that state laws endangered poor women, who often resorted to unsafe means of abortion out of desperation.
In later years, Jane Roe (a play on the name used for an unknown individual in the court of law: Jane Doe), otherwise known as Norma McCorvey, came forward as the case’s central figure and a proponent of reproductive rights before abruptly disavowing her previous beliefs; she became a born-again Christian and joined Operation Rescue, a particularly reactionary pro-choice oganisation. Having been targeted for years by the pro-life movement while also living openly as a proud lesbian, McCorvey’s sudden defection to a right-wing group notorious for heckling patients and burning rainbow flags outside of clinics was shocking.
Perhaps even more shocking was her deathbed admission, laid bare in director Nick Sweeney’s new FX documentary, AKA Jane Roe: McCorvey had been paid handsomely by the pro-choice movement to renounce her beliefs and condemn abortion.
The film traces McCorvey’s fraught history with the media, as she began to take umbrage with the pro-choice movement, which often shunned her post-Roe for her brash, outspoken nature.
“She was not the poster girl that would have been helpful to the pro-choice movement,” Charlotte Taft, an abortion counselor and pro-choice advocate featured in the film, explains. “However, an articulate, educated person could not have been the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade.”
Though it’s tempting to write someone like McCorvey off as an opportunistic sell-out, AKA Jane Roe is a cautionary tale of what can happen when supposedly progressive movements lose sight of the vulnerable individuals they claim to fight for in the first place. It’s also a touching portrait of a very complicated woman beyond her controversial political life. A wry and charismatic woman, McCorvey weathered abuse, alcoholism, poverty, harassment, and homophobia throughout her life, eventually finding some form of financial stability as a mouthpiece for Operation Rescue.
Beyond letting her explain her motives before her death in 2017, producer and director Nick Sweeney wanted to give Norma McCorvey a chance to finally speak for herself, political agendas aside. Below, we spoke to Sweeney about working on the film.
How did you meet Norma, and what drew you to telling this story?
I didn’t grow up in America, I grew up in Australia. Even there, I was always aware of Roe v. Wade. What I will admit to being very naive about is that there was an actual person involved in it, that Norma McCorvey was the plaintiff who used the name Jane Roe in the case. I knew that there was a down-on-her-luck 21-year-old who ended up with a pregnancy that she didn’t feel that she could carry to term, and that person ended up becoming Jane Roe, and then in the ‘90s, becoming an anti-abortion activist. But I didn’t know anything beyond that, really. At one point, I had actually been doing a series about transgender kids, and I remember being on a plane flying somewhere and I just started reading about the case. I ended up in a Wikipedia hole and started reading more and more about Norma McCorvey, and I was just so shocked and stunned at how extraordinary her life was.
Norma was such a colourful character. What was it like getting to know her and working with her for the documentary?
I’m gay myself, and I had also found it very interesting that Norma had, in the mid ‘90s, publicly disavowed her sexuality. She had lived as an out and proud lesbian for so many years, and then suddenly was saying that homosexuality was wrong. I remember when I first reached out to her, she was quite unfriendly initially. I worked up the courage to call her and tell her what I wanted to do, and she hung up on me. But then she started sending text messages to me saying, like, “From what organisation are you approaching me?” And the answer was none. I was somebody who was uninvolved in the abortion debate, and once she realised that, and that I was gay as well, she had all these questions about my boyfriend and how long we’ve been together. I went down to Texas, and we met up, and we got on really well and we hung out. One of my earliest memories was, we were walking into a restaurant and a young woman walked past us, and Norma wolf-whistled at her. And I think that was the point [at which] I knew that there was more to Norma than everybody thought.
It’s interesting to hear that she was wary at first, because there are such intimate scenes in the film, especially towards the end as she’s in the hospital on her deathbed. What was it like to have that level of trust?
As a filmmaker, it was a huge amount of pressure and responsibility to be true to Norma’s story and to the things that she told me. I think one of the things that struck me as we got to know each other is that her health was deteriorating. I think that she knew that she was running out of time, and looking back, she was extremely motivated to film all the time. I spent a lot more time filming with her and hanging out with her than I normally would, and part of that was because she was always asking, “When are you coming back? When can we film again? When can you come back to Texas?” And I didn’t think about it so much at the time, but looking back, I think she was so pushy because she was running out of time. She wanted to tell her story on her own terms and get it all out because she knew that this was her last chance.
What was it like working with the pro-life figures included in the documentary?
I think what’s so interesting about the film, and one of the other things that really drew me to Norma’s life is that she was, at various different points, surrounded by these huge, larger-than-life personalities on all different sides of the abortion debate. You’ve got someone like Gloria Allred, who was Norma’s attorney. Norma stayed very close to [Gloria] for many years, even after her conversion. Then on the other side, we’ve got these people like Reverend Rob Schenck and Flip Benham, who are such interesting characters.
Norma’s story is very surprising, but somebody like Rev. Rob Schenck, who was a key figure in Operation Rescue around the time of Norma’s baptism, his journey throughout the film, is equally surprising in many ways. When we initially made contact with him, I didn’t expect his reaction to be what it was. He corroborates these astonishing statements that Norma makes, and he’s able to corroborate them because he was there. He was one of the organisers of a lot of Norma’s public appearances around that time. Being in the room and hearing Rob say these things, as a filmmaker, was really a surreal and shocking experience.
It’s interesting how the documentary doesn’t seem to attempt to pick sides or moralise about Norma’s political life.
Often in film, we don’t let people be as complex as they are. There’s a temptation with characters like Norma to try to ignore the complexity in order to tell a neat story, and with this film, what I really wanted to do was to embrace all those contradictions, and lean into those. I think that the thing she felt very oppressed by throughout her life was being boxed in by other people’s expectations, and with the film, she really wanted to go off-script and explain who the real Norma McCorvey was.